Wanda Vekasi was living in Tampa at the time, a block from Bern’s Steak House, when she got the call from her husband at 3 p.m. Their niece, Elisa Nelson, 10, hadn’t made it to her Palm Harbor elementary school on her bicycle that morning. With her own 2-year-old daughter in tow, Vekasi drove to Pinellas County to comfort her sister, Wendy Nelson, Elisa’s mom. That night, as a way of coping, friends and family of the Nelsons would pile into a car and drive around, calling out Elisa’s name. She didn’t answer.
That was on Nov. 4, 1980, the day President Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in a landslide. Wednesday, nearly 33 years later, the man who kidnapped and murdered Elisa that day is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection. Larry Eugene Mann, now 59, has exhausted all his appeals. “It will bring closure, I don’t care what people say,” said Vekasi, 62, who now lives in Tarpon Springs. “But for my tax dollars to keep that guy alive all these years is ridiculous.” Mann, once a well driller living in Dunedin, was convicted of kidnapping the girl, then beating her with a piece of pipe and slitting her throat. Elisa’s bicycle was found thrown into a ravine the same day she disappeared; her body turned up in an orange grove the next day, her aunt said. Mann’s various defense attorneys have said Mann didn’t deserve the death penalty because he was a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser. He was so ashamed of what he had done, he tried killing himself within hours of the slaying, stabbing himself repeatedly on the arms, one said. But he also had a serious criminal past. Mann had molested a 7-year-old girl many years before he killed Elisa, prosecutors have said. And, at the time of Elisa’s murder, he was on parole in a 1973 rape in Mississippi, where he told his victim if she didn’t comply with his sexual demands, he’d “get what he wanted” from an 18-month-old baby in the next room, a prosecutor said. On March 20, 1981, a jury found Mann guilty of first-degree murder and kidnapping and recommended death by a 7-5 vote. Circuit Judge Philip Federico meted out the death sentence six days later. But the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing, ruling that prosecutors hadn’t provided enough evidence to show, among other things, that the slaying was cold, calculated and premeditated. At the new hearing, prosecutors introduced new evidence, and Federico sentenced Mann to death again, his attorneys said in court papers filed last month. The case was eventually appealed at the federal level, with the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ordering another sentencing before a second panel of jurors. The federal court ruled that Federico erred in suggesting the jury’s role in sentencing was “merely advisory.” This time, in a 1990 proceeding, a jury recommended death by a 9-3 vote, after which Circuit Judge James R. Case sentenced him to death. The Florida Supreme Court backed that sentence. In their last appeal, Manning’s attorneys argued there has been consistent pressure to put Mann to death, especially from Wendy Nelson, Elisa’s mother. In 1994, Nelson, apparently frustrated with the slow-turning wheels of justice, appeared in a TV commercial supporting Jeb Bush in a gubernatorial race because the incumbent, Lawton Chiles, had failed to execute Manning during his term. She has also campaigned against two sitting court Florida Supreme Court justices, calling them “soft on crime,” especially in capital cases, Mann’s attorneys wrote in the March appeal. Before one death sentence, Nelson family members and members of the community wrote more than 120 letters to the presiding judge, calling for a death sentence. At at least one sentencing, the courtroom was packed with members of the League of Victims and Empathizers (LOVE), most of whom were friends and family of Elisa Nelson. The LOVE members heckled Manning’s defense attorneys and defense witnesses during lunch and other breaks and stood outside the courthouse in large groups, Manning’s defense attorneys said. Jeff Nelson, Wendy's son and Elisa's brother, speaking on behalf of the family, declined to respond to the specifics of the appeal. "We want to keep our heads low until this thing is done," he said Friday. The appeals process, Jeff Nelson said, was too long, especially for a defendant such as Mann, who had confessed. That needs to change, he said. "There needs to be strict guidelines on rulings and when responses are made," Jeff Nelson said. Manning’s attorneys also argued Manning had been a model prisoner from the get-go, was “a truly devout student of the Christian Bible and has generated deep friendships with prison guards and others around the world,” according to the appeal filed by his attorneys, Marie-Louise Samuels Parmer and Maria E. DeLiberato, who are with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel. Referencing the 9-3 split among jury members, Manning’s attorneys note Florida is the only state in the entire country that allows a jury to recommend death by a simple majority. Such a system is unconstitutional, they said. The Florida Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled on Tuesday it would not have a hearing on this or any other aspect of the appeal filed by the CCRC.